10 Practical Writing Tips from the Greats

There’s a lot of writing advice floating out around there, much of it to do with the philosophical approach to the craft, or the ever elusive formula for creativity. I’ve compiled here a list of very practical suggestions from Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and a few others. Some of this advice may seem simple, but it’s done wonders for my own manuscript.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. – George Orwell

This is surprisingly difficult. I know I’m always saying things like “quick as lightning” or using tired descriptions like “a shiver ran down my spine.” But if I can think of something more clever, it’s very effective.

StephenKingQuote2. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” – Stephen King

Reading is like recharging your wordy batteries. Good writing needs inspiration.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. – Kurt Vonnegut

Not only should your characters want something, you should know what they want. We scheme, we fight, we love, we beg, we do the truly interesting things to get what we want. Without wanting, what reason is there to do anything?

4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action. – Kurt Vonnegut

This isn’t to say your prose needs to be sparse and dry. But every sentence must have a purpose. Even the pretty ones that set the scene must do so in such a way that we approach a theme central to the book, learn about a character through their surroundings and perceptions, or move the plot forward through discovery.

VonnegutQuote5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of. – Kurt Vonnegut

 Normal is boring. As Leo Tolstoy said, all happy families are alike. I’d rather read about the unhappy families, each unhappy in its own way.

6. Don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” – Stephen King

Sometimes what sounds good and what is grammatically correct are not the same thing at all. Unless you’re writing a textbook, go with what sounds good, every time.

7. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. – Neil Gaiman

When someone critiques my work and says “this just doesn’t feel right” or “I don’t really like that,” sometimes I want to hit them. Especially if it’s a piece I thought was exceptionally well done. (It usually is.) But they’re almost always right, even if they can’t tell me why, or what to do about it. In fact, when they do tell me what to do about it, or cross out my sentences and write their own, they’re often dead wrong.

8. Use regional dialect, patois,  sparingly. – Elmore Leonard

Please. Please do this. Wading through a book filled with apostrophes where letters should be and messy phonetic spellings is very annoying. Don’t avoid dialect, but keep it sparse and understated.

9. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. – Elmore Leonard

Said is clean. Said is direct. Said is the simplest and most effective way to accomplish the task. ‘Nuff said.

OrwellQuote10. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. – George Orwell

This might be the most important rule of all. Any and all writing rules can be broken, and often it’s just a question of style. Find yours, and cultivate it. If you’re going to do something as audacious and stupid as write a story, you’d better do it with style, or not at all.

3 thoughts on “10 Practical Writing Tips from the Greats

  1. Lori Moll says:

    It is so interesting seeing the process of writing. As a reader, I know that a book is great when I am completely unaware of my surroundings while I am reading. I admit that I didn’t know how hard it is to craft a novel.

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